Kitchen Tips

The foods you should be eating to help protect your brain health

Nutrition expert, Dr Joanna McMillan, shares the best foods to eat to help maintain your brain health, help protect against memory loss and boost brain power.

A lot of emphasis is put on eating well to help our bodies perform at their best - whether it be cutting back on carbs, adopting a low-sugar diet, or going vegan. We're very familiar with tweaking what we eat in attempts to keep our muscles and organs healthy. But, surprisingly, we can overlook one of the most important organs in our body - our brain.
Dr Joanna McMillan is a PhD qualified nutrition scientist, dietitian and author whose new book - Brain Food - explains how good eating and lifestyle habits will not only help fight cardiac disease and diabetes, but will also help slow the ageing process of the brain, helping it work better as we age.
Here, Dr McMillan answers some burning questions we had for her about how making changes to our diet can help improve our brain health.
This kale and quinoa frittata recipe is packed with healthy greens, rich in Vitamin A, as well as low-GI carbohydrates which help prevent spikes in blood sugar.

There’s a lot of hype currently about avoiding sugar, is eating sugar bad for the brain?

Not directly and in fact the brain's preferential fuel is glucose, one of the simplest types of sugar. But by sugar most people think of table sugar and certainly too much added sugar in your diet is not good for the brain. However, too much refined starch is also bad. In essence it is refined and highly processed carbohydrate-rich foods that provide too rapid an uptake of sugars into the blood and these 'spikes' in blood glucose and certainly not good for the brain. Sugars present in fruit and totally different as they usually slowly absorbed and accompanied by fibre, nutrients and protective plant chemicals such as antioxidants.

A lot of your recipes include seafood and oily fish like salmon, how do these fit in to a brain-friendly diet?

Oily fish are our best dietary source of the long chain omega-3 fats. We know these are important for brain function as they are concentrated in the brain. We can make these fats from the shorter chain omega-3 fats found in some plant foods – that I also recommend we eat – such as walnuts, flaxseed and chia, but we have a limited capacity to do so. It is best therefore to eat oily fish at least twice a week.
This prawn, kale and chickpea tabbouleh recipe is a delicious way to get more healthy omega-3 fats into your diet.

Are there any foods that are particularly good to eat for brain health?

Veggies stand out as being good for the brain and overall a high plant food intake. People who eat the most veggies have been shown to have significantly less cognitive decline with age. Berries have also been shown to be good for brain health – for example blueberries have been shown to improve memory. Nuts, renowned for their benefit to heart health, are also good for the brain. The MIND diet is one of the biggest to look at diet and cognitive function and this approach found that combining a traditional Mediterranean diet with a DASH (dietary approach to stop hypertension) was extremely effective at lowering risk. In essence the diet is loads of plant food, good fats from nuts, avocado, oily fish and extra virgin olive oil, low salt, few sweet treats (other than fruit) and lower intakes of meat.
Dark chocolate, like that used in this delicious sweet potato brownies recipe, contain beneficial antioxidants that may help our brain stay healthy as we age.

Will taking supplements help with brain health

Supplements will never replace the power of a healthy diet. However, there are a small number that may provide an additional benefits. A good quality omega-3 supplement is probably a good idea if you can't or don't want to eat oily fish twice a week. Low levels of vitamin D are known to increase your risk of cognitive decline, therefore taking a supplement is highly advisable if you have had your levels tested and know they are low. There is interesting research around aged garlic extract for improving cognitive function it those with Alzheimer's disease, but we don't really know yet what the effects are on healthy aging. But since it has other benefits on heart health for example, it may also be worthy of taking.

What else can we do, apart from diet to help maintain our brain health?

Stay active and get regular exercise, stimulate your brain with learning and education, enjoy an active social life, get enough sleep and manage your stress levels. These lifestyle factors are just as important as what you eat.
BRAIN FOOD by Dr Joanna McMillan (Bauer Books) rrp: $35
Available at www.magshop.com.au and all good bookstores.

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